A sweet menagerie

Dec 7, 2005 at 12:00 am

Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams seem to be creeping back, some decades after their deaths from similar causes — pickling of the liver. Capote was just released in theaters, and Williams has had a spate of revivals since 2003, the 20th anniversary of his death, in New York, Stratford, Ontario, and now southeastern Michigan.

The Hilberry Theatre has just revived one of Williams’ more controversial plays, Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea is finishing its run of The Glass Menagerie (1949). The Stratford Festival presented Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Orpheus Descending (1957) last summer, and will present Menagerie in its 2006 season. Both A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Menagerie received Broadway revivals earlier this year.

When Williams wrote Menagerie he was at the height of his creative powers: poetry fused with naturalistic storytelling and symbols honed to a pinpoint of dramatic urgency.

There are four main roles: Tom Wingfield, the narrator, his mother Amanda, his sister Laura, and her gentleman caller, Jim. Tom steps out of the narrator role and into the play, and a fine set by Dennis G. Crawley demonstrates the Bauhaus axiom, “Less is more.”

Amanda is part Scarlett O’Hara and part Ann Landers, with a dollop of Kathie Lee Gifford; she gives unwelcome half-baked advice in long streams of Southern consciousness, half the time annoying, the rest of the time, a beguiling flirt. Michelle Mountain, whose roles at Purple Rose and elsewhere are a compendium of acting styles and disparate characters, makes Amanda a splendid beast — a “magnificent insect,” to quote another Williams play.

Her goal is to get Laura, two years Tom’s senior and well on her way to a failed life, married; and for Tom to bring home a gentleman caller to do it. Molly Thomas plays the defective Laura — she has a limp and is pathologically shy, unable to return to business school because she threw up on the floor. She may well be the tallest Laura on record, though no one keeps records of such trivia, and her height and slimness play well for the character.

When she’s alone with Jim, she suddenly looks different — flirty, suppressing hysterical giggles, her mother’s daughter.

As the ray of sunshine, Ryan Carlson is Jim, who comes on the scene and radiates sincerity — though his surprise announcement that he’s going steady blights everyone’s ambitions. He brings a dose of reality into this dreamy family. The chunky Carlson, who’s been a mainstay at Purple Rose and Planet Ant, has the grace of a panther and the charm of an Irishman on St. Patrick’s Day.

Finally, there’s Tom Wingfield, played by Tom Whalen, an attractive, versatile actor. When he’s narrating he seems so real, yet when he steps into the play he becomes and sounds different, an acting trick that not even Penn and Teller could debunk. But, still, he’s many years too old for the role, and as good as he is, the age difference among family members is disconcerting.

This is, fortunately, the only misstep made by director Michelle DiDomenico in her directing debut. The blocking and movement of the actors is deft and subtle. The scene between Jim and Laura is like a pas de deux in a ballet — all lifts and balances and movement toward and away from each other — and there’s strong physical interplay between Amanda and her son.

Another director, James Luse, has found ways to bring characters to life in a somewhat more complicated scenario — 14 roles in four settings — in Sweet Bird of Youth at Wayne State University’s Hilberry Theatre. But he too makes some less than ideal casting choices.

In one of Williams’ most baroque plots, 28-year-old Chance Wayne lands in a high-priced hotel suite in Florida’s panhandle, St. Cloud, along with aging actress Alexandra del Lago. Chance was born and raised in St. Cloud, a stud among studs. His true love is Heavenly Finley, daughter of Boss Finley, a political demagogue who advocates castration for errant Negroes — and for Chance, who impregnated his daughter. One Easter Sunday, Chance takes his chances on recapturing Heavenly, Alexandra recovers her career if not her youth — she sucks on oxygen and tosses pills with booze — and Boss Finley’s thugs get their hands on Chance.

Chance is played well by Michael Brian Ogden, but though he’s sexy-cute, he doesn’t have the magnetism of the actor who original played the role, Paul Newman. Morgan Chard turns in a creditable performance as Alexandra, despite the fact that she’s portraying a decaying star with her vigorous, young body. So, high melodrama becomes lurid soap opera.

However, the actors are given strong support by director Luse, who knows how to use the bedroom as a sexual staging area. There are a few standout performances — Mike Metzel as Boss Finley, who rages from his wheelchair, delivering his “Voice of God” speech, advocating slice-and-dice justice; and Patrick Moltane, also fine as the thuggish son, Tom Finley Jr.

Excellent support in other roles includes Tiffanie Kilgast (Aunt Nonnie), Megan Callahan (Heavenly), Chris Corporandy (George Scudder/Dan Hatcher) and Jennifer McConnell (Miss Lucy, who seems to have more appropriate physical characteristics and vocal capacity for Alexandra.)

Despite less-than-perfect casting — and the updated script references are clumsy — it’s vividly entertaining to see and hear one of America’s greatest playwrights’ better works.


The Glass Menagerie. The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea; 734-433-7673. Through Dec. 17. $25-$35.

Sweet Bird of Youth. The Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-577-2972. Through Jan. 28. $15-$28.

Michael H. Margolin is a performing arts writer who played the newsboy in a summer stock production of Streetcar in the previous century. Send comments to [email protected]